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Editor’s Note, January/February 2000

Masterpieces in the Making

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, January/February 2000 | Volume 21, Number 1

The earliest versions of two of America's celebrated novels, The Great Gatsby and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are to be published this year. For readers and scholars alike, they offer a rare chance to see a novelist at work between the lines--how the writer altered a character or shifted an emphasis or lost a passage entirely.

The manuscript that became Gatsby is described by James L. W. West III as like a piece of familiar music "played in a different key." With support from NEH, West has been at the Princeton library piecing together the fragments of the underlying manuscript, a work called Trimalchio. In this early version, West writes, Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker take on a more catalytic role in the romance of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby, and Gatsby himself remains an enigmatic figure for a longer time.

"Fitzgerald improved the novel in galleys," West goes on to say. "The Great Gatsby is a better book than Trimalchio. But Trimalchio is itself a remarkably good novel, and different enough from Gatsby to deserve publication on its own."

Across the country at the Mark Twain Project, the discovery that is under study is a first draft of Huck Finn, or more precisely, the first half of the first draft--665 pages of handwritten manuscript found in an attic in Hollywood, California, a decade ago. The manuscript was written between 1876 and 1880 and had been mislaid for more than a century. A scholar on the project, Victor Fischer, says the manuscript shows Twain rewriting the famous opening passage three times, and that in the rewriting a more complex moral reasoning on the part of Huck begins to emerge. The dialects of the characters are made more compatible and there are some substantial cuts, one of which became a chapter in Life on the Mississippi.

Huck himself--and the quality of his character--have been criticized since he emerged from the brain of Mark Twain. Critics faulted Huck at the end of the nineteenth century for his uncouth manners and in the twentieth century for his language and attitudes on race. In 1885, the Concord, Massachusetts, library banned the book as "the veriest trash...rough, coarse and inelegant." In recent years, an Arizona student withdrew from classes rather than subject herself to material she considered demeaning and offensive. A new NEH-supported film looks at this bumpy history and the larger problem of teaching controversy in the classroom. In this issue NEH Chairman William R. Ferris talks with a teacher who appears in the film, Nancy Methelis. They discuss the 1840s setting of Huck Finn. They delve into whether such a book is necessary or even relevant to the present-day classroom, and, if it is, what the strategies are for teaching it.

As for Mark Twain, he expected his two most famous sons to keep getting into trouble. "I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them," he commented to one reader in 1905. "The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old."